I am pleased to present this guest post by Helen Batchelder — she had the privilege of visiting the birthplace of Bronson Alcott.
You can still sign up to attend Helen’s two lectures on Alcott at the Fruitlands Museum – call 978-456-3924, ext. 291. Cost is $12 for members, $20 for non-members.
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Land impacts our development, actions, preferences, and constitutions.
Did you grow up on flat farmland? Near mountains? By rivers? Lakes? Streams? In a cityscape? I grew up in a quiet country town that had two major disturbances — the construction of a highway, and housing developments prompted by a boom in the job market thanks to Digital and IBM, but they were far from my drumlin, my arthritic ancient apple trees, and the gigantic rocks left behind by running glaciers. Likely this granted me a very different perspective on life and my place in it than I otherwise might have had, if the privacy of my childhood home had been the 34th floor of an apartment building in New York. In my research on Amos “Bronson” Alcott, I kept turning to his hometown, picturing him, a youth, the first of his parents’ nine children, ambling about a sparsely wooded hill, gathering who he would be. I provincially imagined that hill to be like my drumlin, much smaller than the 420’ elevation of my hometown of Harvard, Massachusetts in which he would, in 1843, attempt a “Con-sociation” called Fruitlands.
This is Alcott’s own drawing, copied from Odel Shepard’s Pedlars Progress, a biography about Alcott’s life, printed in 1938:
Alcott’s home was on Spindle Hill, one of the many in the town of Wolcott, Connecticut. Alcott enjoyed his childhood here. As a teenager he left Cheshire Academy because he was homesick (which may or may not have been true, but Cheshire was, like everywhere near his home, down along one of the slopes that Wolcott rolls into). He left home to pedal goods in Virginia when he hadn’t obtained a teaching position. He came back to Connecticut later, taught at two schools, and eventually, married a Boston woman, Abigail Alcott, a descendant of John Hancock, Quincys, and Sewalls. And moved into her town.
While we think of the couple as Concord residents, they actually spent most of their time in Abigail’s Boston, and while Alcott stopped in at Spindle Hill whenever he was passing through, one gets the sense that he didn’t get back there as often as he might have liked.
Abigail was a city girl, born and raised in Boston. She was presumably comfortable there as a result. But Alcott was a country boy averse to industrialization, surplus-and-market economies, gleam, mess, and bustle. The city benefited him in that it engaged his mind as he found others who shared his literary, metaphysical, philosophical, and reformist interests. Yet, in all lives there exist outlets to ground us. For example, hunting, singing, and games were all ways to center oneself. In the Gilded Age, the Captains of Industry left their sooty city ironworks and fanned themselves in the mansions and oceans of Newport. We think of these as pastimes, but they serve to take one out of a focus and give the mind a break. Since the Alcott we know spent so much time in his head, there in the expanding booms of Boston, where might we find his grounding opposite? We all know the answer: Nature. For one so abstracted, nothing gets much realer.
Did this start on Spindle Hill?
We know from Alcott’s biographers that he described sensing a “Presence” on the top of a place he called “Connecticut Hill.” This Presence, combined with his frequent absorption with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress left an indelibly Divine mark on our man. But one can combine a mysterious spirituality and an 18th-century narrative without ever developing a love for nature, and not only did Alcott love nature, he also used its many tangible forms — leaves, flowers, feathers, stones — as emblems; as metaphors for what we might today consider sacred thought, weaving together the sublime with the mundane.
And, somewhere early along the line, he developed an enviable amount of stamina. Like Thoreau, he could walk and walk and walk, and, according to his journals, seems always grateful and energized afterward. I wanted to know if “place” engendered such a person.
I needed to see Spindle Hill. I wanted to find his “Connecticut Hill.”
Fortunately, Wolcott has a fantastic historical society website (http://www.wolcotthistory.org). In looking for these hills, I came across an article written by the society’s primary contemporary resource, Florence Goodwin, about a series of towers that were built in the middle of the twentieth century so that television could be broadcasted from Boston to New York; one was in Wolcott, on Lindsley Hill, 1000+ feet above sea level. 1000 feet! I contacted Florence, who enthusiastically offered to take me and a fellow Interpreter, Ruth Bobzin, on a tour of Alcott. (I mean, Wolcott!) It was, truly, a pilgrimage.
To get to Wolcott, you leave the main highway and begin a long ascent. This is just the beginning. There are hills everywhere. We went down as much as up, and when the land is flat, it’s not flat for long. It goes up or down and meets the Mad River; continues, long ups and long downs. I apologize for not counting the hills. But I did find out how Alcott developed that stamina. Walking. Up, down, up, down. Slanted approaches, then the hills. Over and over again.
And why would he be doing this? To run errands, perhaps, but most likely to spend time, or help, or move shared or traded materials with his five-hundred relatives in Wolcott.
Wolcott had 1000 residents when Alcott was a boy, but half were related, and if Nanny Lou needed help, who would ever ask her to trace her genealogical chart? One would simply jump in and do whatever was needed.
The roads and the houses that now form Spindle Hill seem to spiral up and ribbon around, congested and tight. I tried to imagine what Alcott saw when he walked about. He wrote that from the top of Spindle Hill, he could see Long Island Sound. There was no way one could do that, now over the clutter of human progress.
Florence parked across the street from his birthplace. There’s a plaque:
Beside it, a white house, inside which a couple of dogs sounded an alarm against our roadside intrusion.
We were quite surprised when the house’s owner came out and invited us in. Surprise turned to excitement as well as the kind awe and reverence that makes the back of your throat ache as you hold back tears.
The current resident of the Alcott farmhouse, Erica Bingham, showed us original beams that remained in the much-remodeled old house. Erica is a porcelain artist; her livingroom and foyer are laden with pretty porcelain pieces. Check out her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ericabinghampottery/.
Alcott’s father worked on this house when Alcott was 17 or 18: “On the twelfth of June [Joseph Alcox] … raised the frame of a new house, which is still standing, on the site of the old one.” (Odel Shepard, Pedlar’s Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott, p. 55).
That means that we cannot say for sure that this fireplace is where Alcott learned to spell at his mother Anna’s feet, but it is likely that Joseph did not tear out an entire chimney so much as expand on the pre-existing one. The trouble with the old house is that it had simply been too small. When this improvement was made, Alcott’s youngest brother, Junius, had just been born. The family had been needing more room for some time. Alcott wrote that even though he hadn’t lived in this new house, exactly, he did carpentry work on it, and was proud of that. And which is more exciting: being in a space where a person lived and breathed, or being in a space a person drove nails into? It’s a toss-up. I choose both.
We drove away, downhill, but came back up another, up, down, up, down; we found more old Alcott homes. We drove near Lindsley Hill. It seemed too far away from the Alcott house to have been “Connecticut Hill,” and I didn’t want to inconvenience Florence any more than we already had.
On the very top of Spindle Hill, which was just around the corner from the house, is where Alcott’s Uncle Obed lived. Note the blue-ish sky and the grassy lawn. This is the pinnacle of Spindle Hill — no snow, as this is where the sun shines most. Uncle Obed owned the West St. school house, which was moved across the street at some point.
Is this the school house Alcott and his cousin William, Obed’s son, eschewed? Pretty hard to skip school when your uncle (and, for William, father) runs it. But that’s a matter for another adventure.
Florence explained that Spindle Hill, and all the hills, flow down to the Mad River, where, historically, the people who were not farmers, worked. The hills flowed to Seth Thomas’ clockworks; the people in the hills made tiny wooden clock pieces for him. (Florence lives in Thomas’ birthplace and took us there as well.) Cottage industries continued here for some time into the 19th century, and people fashioned things at home and then carried them to the manufacturers. Eventually, of course, they all threw their lot in with the factories.
The elevation was striking. Views were expansive and quite beautiful. One might feel that one is floating, here. One might scan the opposite woods for spirit-messages. But another thing occurred to me, too, in addition to the elevation the ceaseless rolling hills, and the concentration of family members, and that was the weather. There had been some snow or rain the day before our pilgrimage. We thought we’d see some Alcotts, or Alcox at the cemetery. (Remember, Bronson Alcott and his cousin William changed the last name in the 19th century, but the name had been pronounced Al-cox long before the Revolution.) Florence gave me a list of all the Alcoxes and Alcotts buried in Wolcott at the sundry burial sites. We decided, given the time, not to visit all of them, and the strangest thing happened when we got to largest: It had been a sunny day, as you can see in the photos above. Not quite uncomfortable, in terms of temperature. We stepped out of Florence’s SUV and made our way to the tombstones. A wind kicked up, the kind of wind that blows right through a down jacket, blows your hat off and messes your hair, and it blasted the snow that was already on the ground from the previous day. The sky seemed to darkened and the air shivered in the ground squall, and we were altogether miserable, looking for Alcoxes or Alcotts or whatever we could find. All that’s consumptive, tragic, frightening, and morbid in the most Poe-esque or Dickensian sense visited us. We agreed that perhaps we’d better to go, and when we got back into the car, all was cheery again. We couldn’t account for it: the sky had not actually darkened.
Florence drove us to Wolcott center. It’s a typical New England town center: white, old buildings. Churches. This is where Joseph Alcox brought his family to worship in his First Church of Christ when they were too weary to make it all the way to Anna’s Episcopal. How many hills to get here from Spindle Hill? Again, I don’t know, but I imagine the 4-mile walk, in mercurial weather, greeted by any manner of relatives who might need assistance, took much longer than the same length walked in a flatter town. I’m convinced that all of this imbued Alcott with his love of nature, his sense of community, a fledgling spirituality that would grow, and his physical stamina.
Helen Batchelder is an Interpreter at Fruitlands Museum in the elevated, chasmic, striated town of Harvard, Massachusetts. She is also a writer, writing teacher, historian, and researcher. She’s currently giving a series of talks at Fruitlands about Bronson Alcott, Wednesday Jan 18 and 25, 7-8:30 p.m. Call 978-456-3924, ext. 291. Cost is $12 for members, $20 for non-members.
photo credits: Ruth H. Bobzin, Helen J. Batchelder
p.s. I just had my first article published in a scholarly publication — The Portfolio, the official newsletter of the Louisa May Alcott Society. One of many steps to come … it’s a big honor and I am very grateful. I have posted a link on my In the Garrett Page as well as on the home page of this site: https://louisamayalcottismypassion.com/from-the-garret/
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3 Replies to “Pilgrimage to the heart(h) of Bronson Alcott”
Thank you for the posting about Wolcott, CT. I have not been there (yet) but I live in the area and the landscape is familiar. Not only hills beyond hills, but the top of a hill can be a different climate zone — colder and windier than the valley below.
Indeed, I can imagine! I have friends in CT (one who recently moved back to Long Island — they used to get snowed in every winter — lots of hills and valleys where they lived).
I was born and bred when my parents lived just up the road from the junction of Spindle Hill Road and Mad River Road, where the Peterson”s Farm house still stands and is sometimes referred to as the Alcott House. A few hundred yards down the hill stands the Seth Thomas House, which my parents helped restore before my birth in 1934. That house also is said to have Alcott connections. I have better photos of the Peterson house than of the Seth Thomas one, although I’m very familiar with both. I can be contacted by email most effectively as “Kraft at upenn dot edu” and am happy to share what I know — genealogy is one of my ongoing interests and history has been my occupation.
Robert (Bob) Alan Kraft, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies, UPENN